In the Czech Republic, there is a famous church known as the Cemetery Church of All Saints. Unlike most medieval ecclesiastical buildings that are still operating, the Cemetery Church of All Saints is modest in size and rather plain-looking from the outside. It was constructed in the early 1400s in the middle of a necropolis where thousands of victims of Bubonic Plague and the Hussite Wars were buried throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. What makes the cathedral a world renowned tourist attraction is not just its peculiar location, but what lies beneath the church: A tiny chapel named the Sedlec Ossuary. (An ossuary is a place to store skeletal remains). In 1511, a half-blind monk was commissioned to stack the bones of some of those laid to rest in the necropolis. The result was a chapel adorned with aesthetics composed of human bones.
The structures in the Sedlec Ossuary attracts thousands of people from around the world each year. But foreigners aren’t trekking to the Cemetery Church of All Saints to see beautiful art. There are hundreds of churches in Europe where tourists can see beautiful art. People show up to this tiny sanctuary to see art made from the remains of dead people. This method of creating is still being practiced. Today in Houston, Texas, artist Wayne Gilbert is incorporating the unused remains of cremated Americans in his own paintings.
As you might imagine, when a person chooses for their body to be cremated, not all the ashes can fit into a ten-inch-tall urn. The unused remains are disposed of the way you would throwaway an unused household object-in the garbage. (This thought may seem a little brash, but it’s just the reality of the situation). After receiving permission from the funeral homes, Gilbert gathers the unused remains of cremated bodies. He then mixes the ashes with a clear gel to apply to his paintings. Using human remains, Gilbert coalesces the essence of humanity with his art in a very tangible and physical way. By doing so, the artist urges us to ask ourselves the fundamental questions of how we as people relate to art and how art relates to us. These philosophical notions beckon us to inquire further. What is art? Does it matter? If so, why? Who says what art is or is not?
14 Pews (a microcinema nestled in the Heights) is currently displaying eight of Gilbert’s thought-provoking works in Wayne Gilbert’s Art Reception: Human Remains Paintings. The images of the paintings are rather simple and straightforward in their sandy, desert colors. One of the eight paintings is a large cardboard-brown money sign rendered against a lighter cardboard-brown background, Gilbert calls “God.” Another painting, entitled “Minimal Person”, is a large square framed by a yellow border. But like the Sedlec Ossuary, Gilbert’s work is appealing for the material he chooses to create with, rather than the aesthetic outcome. Peoples’ reaction to Gilbert’s method of painting with human remains varies. Some find it morbid and creepy. Others think it is creative and philosophical (the way Gilbert intended it to be). Still, others find it inappropriate and disrespectful. You can decide for yourself: Gilbert’s Art Reception: Human Remains Paintings will be at 14 pews till February 10th.
14 Pews is located at 800 Aurora Street. General admission is $10 and free for members. For more information concerning events at 14 Pews, click here.